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Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House
In 1851, a former patient at the Maine Insane Hospital published a scathing attack on his treatment by the institutionís attendants and doctors. Isaac Hunt describes all sorts of abuses and mistreatment. His account makes people wonder whether or not the asylum offered conditions better than those uncovered in local almshouses and jails by the investigative reports of Dorothea Dix. Out of Huntís complaints came an investigation by the Maine Legislature into conditions at the asylum. The testimony of three witnesses is included here. As Hunt was writing his exposť, a fire, partially described here, destroyed the institution in Augusta, Maine, with the deaths of 27 patients, many confined and unable to escape, as well as one attendant. This is an autobiographical voice apparently impaired by his disability, but it is valuable evidence on what life could be like in one the institutions favored by Dix.
Under the lea, and in the angle of that high, tight board fence, is a group to arrest our attention. It consists of some dozen maniacs; few dressed, more half clad, and some nearly naked, who are huddled together like frightened sheep in the corner of a yard, to acquire protection and warmth by close contact with each other. Some of them are crying, others are laughing -- some sitting on the frozen earth, others dancing in maniacal merriment.
By the time we have reached the yard in rear of the Hospital, where hundreds and thousands of others have also arrived, the black smoke with which the building was filled, and which was pouring from all the windows of the central gallery when we first saw it, has become quick flame; and the roar of that flame as it sweeps triumphantly through the halls, and galleries and avenues of the Asylum, is blended with the shrieks of the wild men yet within the walls of the burning edifice! Did ever sounds pierce the heart half so cuttingly? Look you there -- see the arms of a human being thrust through the iron sashes of that window, gesticulating for help in its moment of doom. The frantic body within reels -- it falls -- and the black smoke and red flame pouring through the same window, seem to exult in their merciless triumphs over the dead which they consume. Meanwhile the officers and attendants and citizens are contriving every possible method, and risking even their own lives to rescue the patients yet confined in their rooms.
Look there! See you that daring spirit who rushes into the very face of death in the discharge of duty? -- It is young Jones, one of the attendants of the Hospital, and a nephew of the Superintendant, Dr. Bates himself. He is resolved, in the discharge of his duty, that his own life shall share perils with the unfortunate patients whom he has hitherto so faithfully served. In the central gallery there are rooms yet unlocked, each with a patient confined there-in. He opens the gallery door. The smoke from the burning pitch-pine floor is as thick almost as tar itself -- but he knows there are human beings in those rooms committed to his care, and he must release them from their fiery prison. He enters -- he advances -- he chokes -- he struggles -- he reels -- he falls; the smoke-cloud is his winding sheet, and the flames have done their instant work of death. Alas! Poor Jones, thou diedst in the discharge of DUTY; -- for such there is mercy in Heaven.
Twenty-eight human beings -- with fond friends at home, anxious for their restoration and happiness -- have thus perished within the walls of that burning edifice; and it was not in your power nor mine -- in no human power -- to rescue or relieve them! Oh! May such a scene and such a lesson never be forgotten -- never, indeed, can it be!"
The question will very naturally be asked, "was all done that could be done to save these unfortunate beings from such a death? Could they or could they not have been rescued from that devouring element, if they had been attended to in season; had no delay been made in efforts to quench the fire?" It would naturally seem to have been the first care of the officers to look after the safety of the patients.
According to the testimony of Mr. Smalley, the upper gallery attendant, before the coroner's inquest, he was the first to discover the fire, or rather the smoke; and he went directly to the supervisor, Mr. Weeks, and awoke him, and then returned and immediately unlocked the doors of the patients rooms and induced them, in mild terms, to leave their rooms and the gallery, and go into the verandah. It appears that he was not able to induce but two or three of them to leave, and all the rest perished in the flames. He says that Mr. Weeks, after going below and seeing the fire, directed him to keep still and not excite the patients, and he immediately returned to his gallery, but was prevented from again entering on account of the dense smoke.
By the testimony of Mr. Weeks the fire had made considerable progress when he entered the hot air chamber, in the basement of the building; but he says that if he had given his attention immediately, on being alarmed, to removing the patients, he does not think he could have rescued any more of them than he did. I do not know as he could, but it appears to me that every one of them might have been saved, if he and others had not stopped to throw water, as they said they did. I suppose they continued that until the flames had got under such headway that they could not subdue them, and then the whole building was filled with smoke, so that it was impossible to remain any longer, and thus perished twenty-seven patients and one attendant.
The question will naturally arise, what was the cause of the fire? Was it from carelessness in constructing a wooden hot air-chamber, or was it the work of an incendiary? Almost every one says that it must have taken from the smoke-pipe which passed through the wooden hot-air chamber, and at one point according to the testimony of Simon S. Bartlett, at the distance of only about two inches, under the floor timbers. Would any person consider that to be safe, who know any thing about smoke-pipes? All would say that it was not, and then the next question would be, by whose orders was a wooden air-chamber constructed in such a building? Where there were from 150 to 175 human beings exposed and liable to be burnt in case the building was on fire. The answer is, that it was constructed by the orders of, and under the supervision of Dr. James Bates, the superintendant, and if the fire took from that cause he is alone responsible for the destruction of that building, and those human beings. Even the flues for conducting the hot air to the galleries were made of pine plank and they were immediately on fire, and conveyed the fire instantly into each of the galleries, and passing through those pitch pine floors, they were instantly in flames at about the same moment, and it was like setting fire to tar barrels. Hence the dense smoke and the reason that each story of the building was on fire at the same moment. Here follows the verdict of the Coroner's Jury.